Monday, March 30, 2009

Grate Expectorations

It was a good time; it was a bad time. It was the age of smartness; it was the age of George Bush. It was the epoch of gullibility; it was the epoch of mulishness. It was the season of brilliance; it was the season of dimness. It was the summer of optimism; it was the autumn of defeat. We had abundance up our butts; we had nil lodged in our posteriors. We were all going non-stop to Disneyland; we were all on the express line to Detroit. In short, the era was so much like the present era that some of it's loudest commentators insisted on its being declaimed in the most extreme terms alone.

Thus does Charles Dickens's beloved novel, A Tale of Two Cities not begin. It's not pretty when some lesser writer rewrites Dickens, is it? And what writer isn't less than Dickens?

PBS's fancy-schmancy series Masterpiece Classic, which used to be called Masterpiece Theater back during its first 40 or so years on the air, is doing a season of Dickens adaptations, and last night they began an ultra-long miniseries of Little Dorrit, one of Dickens's best books. Okay, fine. Masterpiece Whatever has a long history of showing superb Dickens adaptations, taking the time to fully adapt and dramatize 900 page novels without hacking them to pieces to cram into a 2 or 3 hour long movie. Further, Little Dorrit, unlike Oliver Twist or David Copperfield or A Tale of Two Cities or A Christmas Carol, hasn't been dramatized a billion times already. (A Christmas Carol is fast approaching 2 billion, not that anyone will ever top the Mr. Magoo version, so why bother?) Neither has Martin Chuzzlewit been over-adapted, but it's a lousy book, if not quite the piece of crap that The Old Curiosity Shop is. They have run two versions of Bleak House, one with Diana Rigg as Lady Dedlock, and one with that woman from The X Files in that role, and Bleak House is not exactly one of Dickens's masterpieces. (The chapters where Dickens writes in the first person as his heroine, Esther Summerson, are laughably terrible.) For that matter, Barnaby Rudge, one of his best early novels, is sadly under-adapted also.

Little Dorrit has had one major dramatization. 22 years ago a six-hour movie was made of it in England, starring Sir Derek Jacobi, the divine Joan Greenwood in her final performance, Sir Alec Guinness, and, according to the credits: "Introducing Sarah Pickering as Little Dorrit." I'm afraid she was merely a passing acquaintance, as now, 22 years later, Little Dorrit remains the sole entry on her IMDb resume. Sir Alec was nominated for an Oscar. Little Sarah was banished back to Victorian England.

It was an odd film, as you might expect of a six-hour movie. It told the story twice. The first three hours, Nobody's Fault (Dickens's original title for the novel) told the whole story from Arthur Clenham's (the hero) point-of-view, the second three hours, Little Dorrit's Story (Someone was up all night coming up with that title), retold the same story from - wait for it - Little Dorrit's POV. So, despite a six-hour running time, they still had to condense the plot, and eliminate the main villain, Rigaud, and the villainess, Miss Wade. But on the good side, we got to see a lot of the exact same scenes twice! Oh joy!

It did feature excellent performances from Jacobi, Guinness, Greenwood, and Miriam Margoyles, who is a scream, and they had the sense to use Dickens's dialogue.

Here's the Dorrit family holding forth at the Marshalsea debtor's prison, as illustrated by "Phiz," aka Hablot K. Browne, in the original publication.

So I settled in happily to watch the new TV adaptation, a 14-part version (Half-hour episodes. Fortunately, Masterpiece Classic is running them four-at-a-time, so it won't take all spring to watch.), secure in the knowledge that this time they'd do the whole story. Sure enough, there was resentful Miss Wade, seducing the equally resentful Tattycorum (Played by Doctor Who's Freema Agyeman, although Dickens might be quite surprised to learn the character is now black, and has battled the Daleks.) in a decidedly Lesbianic manner, and there was the homicidal Rigaud, played by Andy Serkis, who I'm told was in The Lord of the Rings with me although we never met, perhaps because I was so involved in the passionate love affair I was having with Gollum at the time. (See my account of our mad affair in Tolkien Resistance.) Andy also played the title role in the recent King Kong. Longtime readers and fans know of my affair with the original Kong, so Andy, I'm afraid, is just trying to get into my panties. Andy, all you have to do is ask, and bring a bottle.

And then there was the dialogue, the non-Dickensian dialogue. They threw out Dickens's dialogue and wrote new dialogue! Sure, and while you're at it, why not present Hamlet without all that overwritten Shakespearean blather? "To off myself, or not? What a question!" Isn't that better? Imagine the ego of the adaptor, Andrew Davies, believing he writes better dialogue than Charles Dickens, whose language has lived for a century and a half.

The big jolt came early on, when Little Amy Dorrit dropped in on her sister Fanny, and Fanny said to her "Never come here again; you cramp my style." YOU CRAMP MY STYLE??? Now we have Characters from the 1830s who are not only not speaking in Dickens's rich language, but who are using anachronistic expressions from the late 20th Century!

Look up "Lousy Writing" in the dictionary and you'll find the name "Andrew Davies."

And this is not a first offense for Masterpiece Classic. A couple weeks back they ran a fresh adaptation of Oliver Twist. Now if there is a Dickens novel that does not need another dramatization, it's Oliver Twist, which has been done and done and done and done. What did this new version have for us that the umpteen billion previous versions did not? Well first off, all of Dickens's familiar, beloved dialogue went out the window. "Prostitute," a word that appears nowhere in the novel, nor in most of Victorian literature, pops out of people's mouths. What was shocking about Oliver Twist when it was first published was that no novel before in that most-repressed of societies had dared have thieves and whores as major characters, but Dickens did not push it so far as to name Nancy's profession. Okay. We're being "franker."

But when a character said to another "Up yours!" I knew we were in Anachronismland. They even stuck in a scene in which the courts offer Fagin clemency if he will renounce his Judaism and accept Christ. That's not in the book. Shakespeare had Shylock sentenced to Christian conversion, but Dickens didn't push the anti-Semitism so far. The musical Oliver, even though it eliminated Rose Maylie and Monks, was still truer to Dickens than this well-acted mess. The writer's name was Sarah Phelps. Shame, Sarah, shame! I'd expect such heresy from Sarah Palin.

I see a TV adaptation of Othello in Andrew Davies's resume. Can you imagine what he's done to that? "Turn off the light, and then turn off the light? If I turn this lamp off, I can always switch it back on again if I need to find the bathroom in the night. But once switch off Desdemona's lights, I do not know where the hell I keep her bulbs, to replace her burnt-out filaments, should I wish to sit up late and read a book."

In between Oliver Twist and Little Dorrit, they ran a relatively condensed edition of David Copperfield from a few years ago, with Harry Potter as Little David. Frankly, I didn't have the courage to watch it, dreading seeing Albus Micawberdore defeat Voldeheep.

Charles Dickens was an intimate friend of mine. Surely you've read of his lengthy, passionate affair with a much-younger actress during the last decade of his life? Well, contrary to popular opinion, I am younger than Charles Dickens, and have been for most of my life. Sure, his biographers call her "Ellen Ternan," but they were just protecting my reputation, a pointless pastime if ever there was one.

Charlie read all of his books to me, and I helpfully pointed out where they could be improved, usually by the addition of more drinking and sex. Dickens liked sex all right. The man had 10 children and a mistress. But he kept it out of his books. Oliver Twist was a bastard, but we joined his history long after his conception. So Charlie, who was nothing if not a an egomaniac, usually ignored my suggestions.

So I know about Charlie. You don't rewrite Dickens. You're safer rewriting Sondheim than Dickens, and Sondheim is still alive to come and get you. (and he will!)

Here's Charlie and his daughters, Mary & Kate, with myself, at Gad's Hill Place, as Charlie reads an extremely advance pre-publication (130 years pre-publication, in fact) copy of my book, My Lush Life. Charlie was consumed with jealousy of my writing skill, which resulted in some very intense anger-sex, the best kind.

One of the great literary mysteries is: why did the enormously prolific Dickens write no novels for the last five years of his life, and, when he did finally start a new book, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, he never even bothered to finish it? The answer is so obvious. As this famous painting, Dickens's Daydream, shows, it was because all he could think about was me, crowding his fictional creations right out of his mind. Sorry. I am now the only person left on earth who knows whodunit to Edwin Drood. (The butler, high on opium.)

Speaking of Fagin, who was played by the always-wonderful Timothy Spall in the recent unpleasantness, here is George Cruikshank's original illustration of him in his cell awaiting execution, something the musical allowed him to escape.

And here he is as portrayed by the great Barry Humphries in the musical. The original production of Oliver was Barry's West End stage debut. He was the original Mr. Sowerberry, and the song That's Your Funeral was written especially for him. He has since played Fagin many times, and may well play Nancy eventually. (Sorry about Barry scribbling all over the picture. He's always pathetically anxious to have people know he's a friend of mine. Barry, people will like you for you if you give them a chance, instead of always clinging to my petticoats.)

So, who has done a good job of adapting Dickens? Well, at the risk of sounding philistine or Hollywoodish (I am, after all, Hollywood Incarnate), I'd have to say that David O. Selznick, 74 years ago in 1935, made two of the greatest-ever Dickens films, with his productions for MGM of David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities, though it didn't hurt that he was filming two of Dickens's three greatest books. (Along with Great Expectations.)

Of course, Selznick's films benefited from great casting. Basil Rathbone was born to play Mr. Murdstone and the Marquis St. Evremonde, and Edna May Oliver was surely who Dickens himself had in mind for Aunt Betsy Trotwood. How could anyone be better than Ronald Coleman as Sydney Carton? Elsa Lanchester improved everything she was ever in, and she graced David Copperfield the same year she was The Bride of Frankenstein. Blanche Yurka was terrifying as Madame DeFarge.

And then there was W. C. Fields as Wilkins Micawber.

Charles Laughton was originally cast as Micawber but, fortunately for mankind, he cocked it up so badly he was fired, and Fields was brought in. Even if the rest of the film had been horrible, and it was wonderful, it would be a classic for Fields alone. One finds oneself cursing Dickens for not making the role a larger one. When Fields as Micawber exposes the machinations of the evil Uriah Heep (Played by lovable Roland Young, Cosmo Topper himself.), you want to cheer and cry, but you're busy laughing. Many great actors have played Micawber since, from Simon Callow (Callow, not Cowell!) to Bob Hoskins, to others, but all pale beside Bill Fields, a man whose tastes in libations I can only be inspired by.

A Tale of Two Cities, my favorite of Charlie's books, has been well done since certainly, particularly in a 1957 version with Christopher Lee and Dirk Bogarde (Lee, although best known as Dracula, seems to have made a cottage industry out of playing old Basil Rathbone roles.), nonetheless the 1935 version has never been topped. The scenes of Paris under The Terror reminded me all too well of my first visit there, for my induction into the French Legion of Honor. (I am officially a Genius in France.) This photo of the festivities at the ceremony honoring me (Which I happened accidentally to miss, being a tad passed out in a wine cellar on the Left Bank at the time) could almost be a still from the movie. Too bad. It would have been an exhibitionism high for me, as I'm told I was expected to give head publically, right there on the platform!

Anyway, the point is that Selznick had the sense to leave Dickens's dialogue alone.

Who else did Dickens well? David Lean. His Great Expectations is the definitive adaptation of Dickens's greatest book, as well as Alec Guinness's film debut. And his Oliver Twist is the only one to see.

Here we see Pip in Great Expectations, rolling the most memorable character, Miss Havishamwow, brilliantly played by Martita Hunt, into the room where her long-ago wedding reception was to have been held, with the cake, the place settings, and even one of the wedding guests, still sitting out, waiting for the groom that will never come, so to speak.

For years people have told me that I'm a natural to play Miss Havishamwow. I have no idea why, unless it's because my own housekeeping is sometimes a bit underdone. After all, she was left waiting at the alter, never married, and bitterly hated all men. I lost count of my husbands somewhere around number 10, and if there's anything I love better than booze, it's men. Still, I did play a similar character, Miss Havadrink, in Great Libations. Poor Miss Havadrink was left waiting for years by the liquor store delivery man. Here I am telling Estella "Make him get you drunk, my dear."

The best Dickens dramatization I've ever seen was the 1980 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Nicholas Nickleby, which was 8 hours long. They basically just performed the whole book, neither changing nor omitting a single word or punctuation mark of it's 900 pages. There is an excellent TV recording of it, with wonderful Roger Rees and charming Emily Richards as Nicholas and Kate Nickleby.

Back in 1994, Little Dougie happened, by chance and coincidence, to meet both Roger and Emily two days apart: Emily in Bath Spa, England, where she was performing in MacBeth with Sir Derek Jacobi, and then encountering Roger in the audience of Damn Yankees on Broadway 48 hours later, in New York City. What are the odds? The RSC Nicholas Nickleby remains the gold standard for mounting Dickens, well that is, for dramatizing Dickens. I remain the gold standard for mounting him. And the RSC used ONLY dialogue written by Dickens, and a hell of a lot of his narrative passages as well. Here's a Phiz illustration of the rousing, crowd-pleasing scene where Nicholas beats the crap out of the vicious, evil Wackford Squeers, liberating the lads of Dotheboys Hall. Well, when a man has "Wack" right in his name, what can you do but wack him off? It got cheers every night! The audiences loved seeing Nick wack him off. (Shift the spaces around, and he becomes a statement of Henry Ford's homphobic employment policies: Wack Ford's Queers.)

Recently there was a darn good movie version of Nickleby, with a towering performance by the awesome Christopher Plummer as the evil Ralph Nickleby. Admittedly, Nathan Lane made a disconcertingly American Vincent Crummles, and the movie is like a Reader's Digest condensation of the novel (Look in vain for the Mantelinis), but they kept Dickens's dialogue, and had a grand cast.

Here's Tom Courtney as Newman Noggs (Tom plays Little Dorrit's father in the new version. He is not what's wrong with it.), Anne Hathaway (Not the famous one who married Shakespeare, but just some actress.) as Madeline Bray, gorgeous Charlie Hunam as Nicholas, and good old Barry Humphries as Dame Edna as Mrs. Crummles in that movie. (When you plop Barry into a film, genders often get confusing.)

And here, from everyone's favorite part of the story, the interlude with Nicholas in the Vincent Crummles Acting Company, is Alan Cummings as Mr. Folair, Jamie Bell, the boy from Billy Elliot and King Kong, as Smike, Charlie Hunam again, and Barry Humphries once more.

So get a clue adaptors and dramatists: if, even for one second, you're tempted to think that you can "improve" the dialogue of Charles Dickens, here's a fact: you can't! Leave it alone, you dips. And Davies, no one ever said "You cramp my style" in 19th Century England. NO ONE!

That doesn't mean you can't have some creative fun with Dickens. Little Dougie is deep into reading Dan Simmons's gigantic (772 pages) new novel Drood, a horror fantastia purporting to portray the last five years of Dickens's life as seen through the laudanum-addled eyes of Wilkie Collins, which continues the literary conceit of calling me "Ellen Ternan." It's an Amadeus-like tale (Collins is wildly jealous of Dickens's talent. Wilkie darling, I loved The Woman in White, even if beige would have been more appropriate. Salieri wishes he could have written The Moonstone.) which mixes the historical facts with a wild tale of horror in a city-beneath-the-city, that is rollicking good reading, and a current best seller. Pick up a copy and enjoy - for weeks!

And Andrew Davies, please do not adapt A Tale of Two Cities. No one is waiting to hear Sydney Carton at the guillitine say "The thing I'm gonna do now is a whole lot better than all the stuff I've done previously," nor even a pithy, "Hey Robespierre, fuck you!"

Cheers darlings. See you at the HuffPo on Friday.


AW said...

I thought you might find this interesting:

jane said...

I completely agree with your comments re RSC Nicholas Nickleby.
I have it on dvd. and watch often. The best adaption of any Dickens. Roger Rees is magnificent.